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Debt: What It Is and Why We Fight It

David Graeber, Mike Konczal, Sarah Jaffe and Brian Kalkbrenner discuss debt--what it is, why we're drowning in it, why it's a political issue. Moderated by Astra Taylor.

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Audience member 2: I really like this idea of debt as a political thing; however, I signed the faculty pledge. I teach at a small private college, and we announced this. We were basically shunned and almost silenced by the rest of the faculty members who said that we were pushing students to be irresponsible. And as an educator, I feel kind of responsible, because I’m not going to be there when the student will be defaulting and her wages are garnished. I’m not taking my signature back, but I still feel responsible, and how do we solve this ethical dilemma? Because I’m not going to be there when the student is in trouble. 

Audience member 3: This is a devil’s advocate question, mainly for David Graeber, but if anybody else wants to answer it, feel free. Current crisis aside, is the goal, in your mind, a society where if someone gives you a truck and you said you’re going to pay them $50,000, and then you don’t want to or can’t, people shouldn’t expect that you feel obligated to fork over the cash at any point in the future? Is that sort of the goal?

Graeber: No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying we need to reset our entire conception of what money is, of what people’s relationships are. Basically what a debt is is making a promise, making it impersonal and quantifiable, enforcing it coercively and therefore making it transferable, which is arguably what money is, too. They’re deeply entangled in one another. It is the nature of all promises that they are both commitments one makes to another person and also, if circumstances radically change, they get to be renegotiated. You can make a system where they can’t, by this combination of math and violence. What I’m talking about is bringing us away from the strange idea that these particular types of promise that are framed in math and backed up in violence are somehow more sacred than promises that one makes to someone which represent an actual type of trust, which, by nature, are renegotiated if circumstances change. If you lend your brother $50,000 for a truck, and your brother suddenly gets wiped out by a flood, you’re going to take that into consideration. So, the jubilee—if we have a system that’s utterly out of whack, it’s a way of setting the reset button. How we then renegotiate obligations to each other, what sort of promises we make to each other in a truly free society is a very interesting question, and I don’t think it’s going to look anything like what we got now.

Taylor: Okay, we’re going to do lightning-fast questions—a few of them at once—and then answers.

Audience member 4: On that last point, David, another way to think about debt is to think about it as a framing, and using the 1%’s framing, but trust in many ways—from all I’ve heard in the past week, there’s been so many discussions and conferences—one of the commonalities is that we’re building new networks of trust. So if you’re talking about human nature and being an observer of it, what would you say are some of the ways we can go onward in terms of building trust?

Audience member 5: My question’s for David Graeber. In the recent New York Times article, they said that basically you’re a person who thinks things have to get worse before they get better—

Graeber: They did?

Audience member 5: Yeah, yeah, they did.

Graeber: Who said that?

Audience member 5: The New York Times Review of Books! They said that you’d also deny it, if you were ever confronted about it. But I just want to see if you would say something about whether or not you actually do believe that. And if you do believe it, I actually agree with you, because I think that some of these petty millionaires and upper middle class people who think they’re still part of the system, that they’re protected by it—which looking around this room, I think that probably covers a lot of people here—need to realize that they don’t care about you and you will be cut out.

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